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Owen's reviews revisited: Reveling in the power of Sidney Lumet's 'Q&A'

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nick-nolteImage Credit: Tri-Star/The Kobal CollectionI tend to cringe whenever I hear a film described as “a ’70s-style movie.” What could be more annoying, after all, than reducing the most famously adventurous and idiosyncratic period of American filmmaking during the past 50 years to a genre, a mode, a “style,” a brand? Then again, it’s not as if we don’t all know what the phrase means. The most potent films of the 1970s shared a number of characteristics — they were tough, complex, violent, and truthful; they looked, without flinching, at the corruption of America — and the directors who made them had names that now cast a mythic shadow: Altman, Coppola, Friedkin, Scorsese, Polanski, Fosse, Penn, De Palma…and Sidney Lumet.

Unlike most of those names, Sidney Lumet has never been, or pretended to be, a cinematic artist-poet. Yet in the brutally volatile and dynamic New York grit and sweat and intensity he brought to dramas like Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976), he was as quintessential and defining a filmmaker of his time as anyone on that list. So what if I told you that one of Lumet’s signature films of the ’70s is a movie you probably haven’t seen, and may not even have heard of? It’s called Q&A, it’s a towering and labyrinthine tale of tribal police corruption in New York City, and it’s a sensational ’70s film…with the one qualifying fact that it was made not in the ’70s but in 1990. Maybe it’s no surprise that the movie got lost.

Twenty years ago this week, I reviewed Q&A in the 11th issue of EW, and here’s a bit of what I said:

“By now, you’d think Sidney Lumet wouldn’t have it in him to make another police-corruption drama. This is, after all, the director who gave us Serpico and Prince of the City…. At first, his superb new movie, Q&A, seems like more of the same. Set mostly in Manhattan — or, more precisely, Lumet’s Manhattan, that harshly mesmerizing, fluorescent-lit urban purgatory — the film is about a dedicated young assistant DA, Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton), who is called on to investigate a case of ‘justifiable’ homicide. The figure under investigation is Lt. Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte), a veteran cop who’s a legend throughout the NYPD, both for his kick-ass bravado and his fanatic loyalty…. Q&A isn’t merely about the mechanics of a cover-up (which it pretty makes takes for granted). It’s a tale of overlapping conspiracies in which personal and professional corruption have merged in subtle, sometimes shocking ways. Having dug through this terrain twice before, Lumet has reached a new, visionary pitch of despair and searing cynicism. Q&A is his darkest, most labyrinthine drama yet. The movie is an epic portrait of an urban-bureaucratic nightmare — it’s about a criminal-justice system so saturated with cronyism and rancor it’s beginning to strangle itself.”

Wow, what fun! Grab your popcorn and Raisinets!! I remember that when I wrote about Q&A, I was thrilled to have a movie of such substance, ambition, and gravely compelling flair to share with my readers. The fact that Lumet was working in what was, by then, an old-school New Hollywood style only added to my excitement. Q&A had a plot as twisty as Chinatown‘s, dialogue that was a peppery, rich gumbo of underworld cop slang and ethnic hostility, and a performance by Nick Nolte, in merde-brown hair and mustache, that dared to go places no performance by an actor playing a police officer had ever gone before. The movie was tricky, audacious, and dark as midnight. The cinema of the ’70s still lived! Yet it didn’t. Not really. In the back of my mind, I knew that the film was probably destined for obscurity, and I wish I’d addressed, in my review, why a movie like Q&A, good as it was, no longer connected to the popular imagination.

The movie took up the theme of racial rancor that had fueled the explosiveness of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (which came out the year before). “For these cops,” I wrote, “racial divisions aren’t a matter of prejudice but a primal reality — the ultimate test of whom you can trust. An open bigot is considered far more honorable than a bogus liberal.” Both Q&A and Do the Right Thing reflected the cynical demise of the Ed Koch era, but Lee’s film had a chattery, low-down snark-in-the-hood buoyancy that balanced its racial anger and despair. Lumet, by contrast, wanted to look right into the heart of darkness of white law enforcers who felt that they had to claw and kill to protect their turf in the New York “jungle,” and his vision was so uncompromised — in its way, so toxic — that it was almost too much. By the early ’90s, people wanted to leave this stuff behind; they were looking for hope. And frankly, you can feel the datedness of the movie in the subplot about the hero’s broken relationship with a mixed-race woman, played by Lumet’s daughter, Jenny Lumet (who, years later, would draw upon her own mixed-race upbringing in her brilliant screenplay for Rachel Getting Married).

Yet in one way, Q&A was almost ahead of its time. The Nolte character, as I wrote, is “a monster — a proudly hateful, street-punk megalomaniac.” What I wish that I’d added — what struck me dramatically seeing the movie again — is that he has gone over the edge into unscrupulous and even murderous behavior because he feels fully justified in a world of urban street terrorists. He’s an outwardly noble, old-guard white guy doing what it takes to battle crime, but he also uses that fight, insidiously, to prop up a system that favors him and his kind. (He’s also a closet homosexual who buries his shame in violence.) The bold bravura of Nick Nolte’s acting is the most exciting reason to see Q&A. He’s extraordinary.

At the time, Q&A was a paradox, a return to Lumet’s street-grit glory days that barely made it onto the cinematic radar. (It grossed a total of $11 million.) As a reminder of what Lumet could do, it possessed almost every dimension of his ’70s classics, and it remains a feast of acting, with superb performances from Armand Assante, Luis Guzman (his first major role), and, especially, Paul Calderon, who plays a desperately hard-bitten drag queen with a sharpness worthy of Johnny Depp. What the movie was a bit too procedurally dour to give you a total, heady dose of was the sheer, crackling joy of filmmaking that had marked Dog Day Afternoon and Network. It’s that quality that finally came roaring back in blazes, 17 years later, when Lumet made Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, his virtuoso thriller of 2007. That was a movie that found joy in the darkness; after all those years, he was still a master. Q&A isn’t quite a great Lumet film, but it’s an ominously powerful one, and for anyone who loves this director I wouldn’t hesitate to call it essential.

So did anyone out there ever see Q&A? And what’s your all-time favorite Sidney Lumet film?